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North Caucasus Resistance Spills Over Into Azerbaijan

  • Liz Fuller

Rappani Khalilov in 2006

Rappani Khalilov in 2006

Over the past decade, what coalesced during the 1994-96 Chechen war as an overwhelmingly Chechen armed resistance movement has spread to neighboring North Caucasus republics, first to Daghestan, then Ingushetia, then to Kabardino-Balkaria. Small cells also exist in North Ossetia and Stavropol Krai.

As a result of that geographical expansion, the resistance has naturally become multiethnic, to the point that Chechens almost certainly already constitute a minority. Within Chechnya, it is subdivided geographically into "fronts"; outside Chechnya, its fighters are organized in separate jamaats that operate independently but coordinate their activities with the commander in chief and war council.

At the same time, the ultimate objective of the resistance has changed fundamentally, from achieving international support and recognition for a democratic Chechen state independent from Russia, to the establishment of a North Caucasus emirate governed according to Islamic law.

In the late 1990s, Chechen fighters under the command of Ruslan Gelayev regularly crossed the border between Chechnya and Georgia and established a rear base in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. But that Chechen presence dwindled following Gelayev's death in February 2004. Until now, there have been no reports that the resistance has spread south from Daghestan into Azerbaijan.

On September 1, however, the Azerbaijani website quoted unnamed Azerbaijani law enforcement officials as saying that on August 25, police and Interior Ministry special forces were mobilized to locate a group of four suspected militants who had crossed the border from Daghestan into Azerbaijan's Gusar district. The intruders were located on August 29 near the village of Hezre, but they escaped under cover of darkness after opening fire and hurling a grenade at the special forces who sought to apprehend them, killing one special forces officer. further identified the militants as belonging to a group named the Forest Brothers (not to be confused with the Georgian guerrilla formation of that name that targeted Russian peacekeeping forces in the Abkhaz conflict zone during the late 1990s). The Daghestan group is reportedly headed by Ilgar Mollachiyev, codenamed Abdulvakhkhid, a native of Azerbaijan's Zakatala district. Mollachiyev is almost certainly "Elgar Malachilov," whom police in Daghestan said is a former second-in-command to Daghestan jamaat commander Rappani Khalilov, who was killed in September 2007.

Three of the young militants killed in a shootout with police in Daghestan's southern Tabasaran Raion in January 2008 were identified as natives of the town of Derbent and as belonging to a group headed by "Malachilov." Azeris are believed to be the largest ethnic group in Derbent, which has a population of approximately 100,000, followed by the Lezgins (who also live in the districts of northern Azerbaijan bordering on Daghestan) and the Tabasarans (the seventh largest of Daghestan's 14 titular nationalities).

It would, however, be premature to conclude that last week's incursion marks the beginning of a concerted effort by the North Caucasus resistance to extend its sphere of influence ouside Russia. In an extensive interview last month with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, a spokesman for Daghestan's Shariat jamaat said that at present its primary objective is to "expel the aggressor" -- meaning Russia -- from the territory over which Umarov and his supporters claim hegemony.
RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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